Earth Day 2015: where are we now?

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

An underlying theme of 45 years of Earth Day celebrations is that human enterprise is imposing a heavy burden on human health and the health of the planet. The rate of consumption of natural resources is far too high to be sustainable. Most of the adverse consequences of the process will be borne by our children and grandchildren even though the damage is apparent today. Converting natural resources to goods and services leaves a stream of waste which exceeds nature’s processing ability. A long list of adverse impacts from human activities are recognized and being addressed but not on the scale sufficient to ensure a sustainable future.

The analogy of redesigning our economic system along the lines of what is necessary for successful living in a space capsule remains a powerful image. As the late economist Ken Boulding advised, we need to redesign our economy as the existing neoclassical economic model now in use is based on outdated science. The promise of continuous economic growth and infinite resource substitution remains the basic premise of economic policies which continue to ignore their adverse ecological consequences.

The most prominent ignored consequence has been accumulating climate changing gases in the atmosphere. Environmental changes including ocean acidification, glacial melting, rising sea levels, biodiversity losses and changes in species abundance and distribution are all influenced by climate change.

The best scientific explanation derived from peer reviewed scientific studies summarized in the most recent IPCC report concludes that the presence of climate changing gases is largely a result of economic and population growth since the start of the industrial revolution. While the potential problem has been recognized at Earth Day events since they began it is now seen as our most pressing environmental problem.

To avoid the worse consequences of climate change a goal has been set to dramatically reduce carbon emissions to limit global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The 2014 IPPC policy summary calls for phasing out of fossil fuels by the end of this century in order to avoid exceeding the goal. If we fail to introduce appropriate actions now it will be far more difficult to achieve the goal in the future.

Considering our extensive reliance on fossil fuels any transition away from them will take time and will be aggressively resisted by owners of fossil fuel resources, politically leaders with ties to the industry and those whose jobs would be adversely affected. Fortunately the science behind the need to limit climate change is clear; we have the technologies and understandings to transition out of fossil fuels. The remaining challenge is gaining public and political support essential to implementing the changes.

The energy transition is accelerating in many parts of the world. While the United States initiated the renewable revolution its most extensive development is occurring in Denmark and Germany. The transition is also well underway in the developing world as the low cost of solar energy allows for their rapid introduction without the high cost of expanding centralized grid service. With the will to act, beginning with individual and local actions, the US could again be a renewable energy leader.

Adapted from a presentation by Bob Brecha at the Sixth Community Solutions Conference, Nov. 7-9, 2014, Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl can be reached via e-mail at sonia@essex1.com.

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